Cape Coral and north to Boca Grande

Travelogue - January 7, 2006

Goldie Could she be any cuter? I ask you. Here is Miss Goldie, quite the salty sailor, peeping out through an aft hawsehole on Sea Gator, at Cape Coral. We had zipped in to the Cape Coral Yacht Basin one Sunday afternoon in mid-December to resolve an electrical system crisis that kept us docked there for two nights. Not much happened there, because we don't count the inadvertent mooning which I will take to my grave.

OK, OK, here's a hint. Two words: "unisex" and "bathrooms". End of discussion.

Goldie watching Back to Goldie. Last cruise, she insisted on being let out of her hutch (by trying to shred it from the inside). I strapped on her halter and leash and released her, and she settled down to watch the scenery in style. I think she is pretty comfortable. Too comfortable, in fact. Although she is only permitted out without her leash when we are at anchor and the water is still as glass, my heart stops when she leans to peer down at the water.

"No running on decks!" So Goldie comforts herself with food (I can identify with that) and she has handily regained all the weight she lost during her brush with death in November. Without her daily dust-wallows in Wyoming she is very clean, and her pelt is as thick and sleek as a seal's. It is a pleasure to pet her.

Passengers Well, where were we? Last Travelogue, December 9 (not counting the Happy Holiday travelogue) we were in Bimini Basin. One day, Don and Lu delivered the hand-held GPS unit Rick had ordered. Rick picked them up on Bump Head, and later all four of us dingied to shore at once. Although we were a bit leery about our freeboard we made it just fine.

Then came Cape Coral Yacht Basin, of which never mind.

Our big exploration finally began during the third week in December. FINALLY! We left Bimini Basin and cruised down the Caloosahatchee, across the "Miserable Mile" and into Pine Island Sound. It was amazing! There were dolphins everywhere (I read that Pine Island Sound has the largest year-round dolphin population in the world). I took many photos of riffles where dolphins had just submerged, but no photos of the dolphins themselves, sorry!

Wading bird We saw lots and lots of birds. To illustrate the shallow waters of Pine Island Sound (and the reason for the ICW in this area), here is a bird standing 50' away from us, in the midst of the Sound. There is a mangrove island in the background. The majority of the mangrove islands in the south half of the Sound are protected as wildlife preserves, so you can look but not touch. It was lots of fun looking!

We chugged along for three-and-a-half hours, until we arrived at Captiva Island, and an anchorage in the sheltered Roosevelt Channel along its south-east shore. This channel was named for Teddy Roosevelt, who apparently came fishing quite often. Below, see Sea Gator at anchor, with Buck Key in the background. Buck Key is also a nature preserve, and there we saw an eagle fishing from his perch atop a mangrove.

Sea Gator in Roosevelt Channel There's a sailboat peeping out in the background, which brings up a strange thing: we were one of only two "live" boats anchored in the channel. The other eight or so appear to be abandoned. We have learned that that is a common problem, and apparently one the State of Florida is struggling with.

It was pretty grey and rainy those few days, as you can see. But still, a very neat place - very secluded compared to the city noises heard from Bimini Basin and the sounds of human gaiety at Marinatown.

We dingied in to Captiva and really enjoyed the cute village. It's a very skinny island: four blocks and we were standing on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. We had lunch at the Mucky Duck - a pub-style restaurant on the beach - and we enjoyed their festive Christmas decorations. That's where our Happy Holidays travelogue portrait was taken, on the beach with the Gulf in the background.

Friends have asked, "Where are you? I don't get the place names, and you're starting to bore me." Well, don't count on not being bored, but here is Florida Geography 101. Maps not to scale.

FL map

Left, behold the southern portion of Florida. In the middle of the southern half of the state is huge Lake Okeechobee, which I understand is bigger than Utah's Great Salt Lake. From there the state is divided, north from south, by water. The Caloosahatchee River runs south-west to meet the Gulf of Mexico just past Cape Coral, and other waterways flow east to the Atlantic. Numerous locks are necessary to make the grades. The green expanse is the Everglades; the Keys are strung along to the southwest.

SW FL map

Refer to the larger scale map, right. Fort Myers is on the south bank of the Caloosahatchee. Marinatown (location of our first Travelogue, with the karaoke and so forth) is near the double bridge; Cape Coral's Bimini Basin is on the north bank, south of the last bridge.

The Miserable Mile is actually about three miles, across the San Carlos Bay; it is "miserable" because of cross currents from the river, Sound, Pass and Gulf. We timed our crossing for slack tide, so we had no problems. "JN Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge" is on Sanibel Island. North of Sanibel is Captiva Island, discussed above.

Across the pass north of Cayo Costa State Park is Gasparilla Island (not labeled), and the town of Boca Grande, where we are right now.

It was a hair-raising adventure to get here, by the way - the currents and the winds tearing through the pass from the Gulf were pretty significant. We were up on the flybridge and still getting wet with spray from the waves, but we made it with no significant damage.

To the east is the massive Charlotte Harbor, with Punta Gorda on the eastern shore near the north end of the Harbor. You may recall that we cruised to Punta Gorda, to Rick's parents' home, for the holidays.

There you have it. If you don't know where Florida is on a map of the U.S., I can't help you. If you're still bored, I also can't help you - although one would think I'd at least try.

We are now at Gasparilla Island, and anchored in a channel called the "Boca Grande Bayou". It is a narrow, sheltered passage between a barrier mangrove island and the town of Boca Grande.

Boca Grande bayou You drop your anchor in the middle of the channel, then back toward the mangroves on the east (right, in the photo). Having prepared in advance (!) you quickly hop in your dingy and row to set a stern anchor or tie to the trees, parallel with the other boats (I don't know what that sailboat is doing in the middle). Later, you dinghy across and tie to the docks on the left, and stroll into town for groceries and terra firma.

We were here for a brief stay before Christmas, and are here again right now. It looks placid, doesn't it? It is touted as one of the most sheltered anchorages in the area. We thought so, too. Until last Thursday, when our minds were changed forever.

We had left Punta Gorda on January 5, crossed Charlotte Harbor and came in to the anchorage mid-afternoon. We decided that our first anchoring was insufficient, so we pulled the anchor in and tried again, successfully this time. We backed up just fine and eventually tied in, just out of the frame in the photo, above. That white sailboat that you can see near the edge of the photo is off our starboard side.

sailboat A blue sailboat is off our port side, with another trawler beyond it. The sailboat looks abandoned, as you can see: its name and numbers are obliterated. Its mast is lashed to its deck with lines and wires duck-taped to the mast. It is partly covered with a silver tarp, and it all smells suspiciously of leaking fossil fuels.

Just after dark Thursday night a major front blew through. The wind kicked up and blew a gale, straight out of the north. If we had been in an open anchorage it would have been a HUGE gale, but Sea Gator would have swung bow upwind as it should be. As it was we were hit broadside.

The canvas cover on our flybridge banged against its frame and roared like a giant kite. The waves pounded us on the side; poor Bump Head crashed and banged against the stern. Our brass ship's bell rang and rang and rang, and the reflection of the lights from the docks across the channel spun left to right and back across the ceiling. It was a roaring frenzy, and we lay awake listening helplessly to the chaos, wondering when it would be over.

Rick got up to check our lines; came back in. A half-hour later I got up to use the "head" and looked out the window. I yelled, "Rick, we are five feet off that sailboat!" He jumped up, said, "Are you exaggerating?" and looked out the window. He yelled, "We are three feet off!" We threw on whatever clothes we could grab and rushed outside. What could we do in a gale? We were being blown hard toward the little blue sailboat and bearing down on it fast.

Rick grabbed a fender (puffy vinyl bumper) and dropped it over the edge - just as it swung down to the level of the sailboat we hit. Bounced off, blew back on. I grabbed another bumper and we dropped it near the first. The wind blew us harder; the sailboat swung away then swung back (leeward of us it was protected from the wind but swirling unpredictably in the waves). The wind screamed and we put out all of our fenders and hung them all along the port rail as fast as we could.

We loomed over that little sailboat. Its anchor line was stretched taught; it looked like all our weight was on that line (now, in the light of day, I realize that was deceptive; the sailboat bounced back and forth freely). Rick and I hunkered down near the rail - there was nothing we could do. We tweaked the lines on the fenders, fussed over them, adjusted them so both boats might be protected, and sat and watched. It was a train wreck, and it went on and on and on and on. The sailboat bounced against us, back and forth and up and down, its tarp cover flapping and snapping in the wind and the water smelling like gasoline and me thinking "spark". All the while the wind was screaming and our bell rang and rang.

We checked our anchor line and the stern lines again and again. Wisely, Rick had tied a "sacrificial" chafing line to bear the brunt of repeated wear and protect the anchor line. The chafing line was as taught as a violin string, it thrummed in the wind. This was suddenly my greatest fear: that the friction would eventually chafe through the line. If the chafing line parted we'd only swing another three feet or so until the actual anchor line caught the load - IF it did - but that would be enough to grind us against the sailboat, maybe wrenching its anchor loose or pinning it between its anchor and us. If that line parted we'd slam downwind and take out the rest of the boats like dominoes.

"It could be worse," Rick observed. "It could be raining." Thank you, Marty Feldman.

As Rick said, there was absolutely nothing we could do (moving Sea Gator would require raising the anchor and removing stern lines - read "take out the rest of the boats like dominoes", above). Finally we came inside and lay down fully clothed on the settee. Goldie came and snuggled in with us, which was comforting beyond description. We got up every half-hour or so to walk outside and watch - it really wasn't getting worse. Rick dozed restlessly, and in the pale light from the docks I could see him sleeping, face glistening with sweat and still wearing his glasses.

I lay awake all night, wearing my jacket and shoes, listening to the constant howl of the wind, the grinding of Bump Head and - worst of all - the pained moaning of our anchor lines. You don't need to know what was going through my mind, but it included adding Sea Gator to the rank of abandoned boats and hightailing it back to Wyoming. I also uttered repeated prayers for our safety; one hour I counted each repetition but gave up after 50. I didn't sleep a wink, thinking that maybe each gust might blessedly be the last, but it never was. Each howling wind was preceded by the clanking of sailboats' rigging upwind of us; I'd hear it and despair, then the new gale would assail us.

At last dawn came. Wouldn't you expect the wind to die down with the dawn? I did; it didn't. I got up to sit at the table and try to read, and I think Rick and Goldie finally got an hour of real sleep. The wind began to subside by mid-afternoon Friday; by then we had struggled hugely to take our canvas down and had tightened our stern lines several times; had of course checked and rechecked the chafing line and fenders a dozen times. I freed poor Bump Head from his pitiful state: pinned beneath the sailboat's stern line and the mangroves. He was filled with mangrove leaves and small branches. We tied him alongside.

Friday night was relatively calm. I was too wired to sleep; kept demanding assurances from poor Rick that the wind wouldn't pick up again. But 36 hours awake and running on adrenaline is too much for me, and finally I crashed. Fortunately it did stay calm and Saturday was really nice.

We are back to our original distance from the sailboat, as though nothing had happened. After much discussion, we theorized that the anchor line on the hypotenuse (of a triangle formed by our bow, originally in the 90-degree corner, our anchor on the long leg and the sailboat on the short leg) plus line stretch was enough to let us stretch close but hold just short of the sailboat. I NEVER need to go through that again, so LESSON LEARNED about anticipating line stretch on the hypotenuse.

We enjoyed Boca Grande today. It is extremely quaint. It's like Jackson South. Instead of the town square, there is an old railroad depot that they've turned into shops. The railroad grade is now a bike path traversing the whole island. Shops are expensive and cute, and we had breakfast with lots of coffee at "Loons on a Limb". We explored some beautiful streets, walked a few blocks to witness some vicious surf on the Gulf - a souvenir of the gale - and we found the Community Center where they show free movies. We patronized the local thrift shop: a pastime of the town ladies who fundraise for community concerns by selling cast-off designer wear.

This evening, my heart still races when I hear a breeze or feel us shift to port. I gasp "Did you hear that?" Just now Rick said, "Are you going to do that every time the wind blows?" I said "Yes".

So he logged on and read aloud the weather forecast for the next few days: calming, warming (it's been in the 30s at night), breeze shifting around to the east south-east, so no more 20 knot northern broadsides into adjacent boats. Thank you, God. As Beverly suggested, I don't need to drag the past into today, so I'm trying to have faith in the moment. Remind me later that I said that.

That's it for me. Hope you are all staying warm and dry, and setting your anchors securely!

Pat and Rick

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